Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


Sergei Rachmaninoff

In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first seven parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music, electronic music, early female blues legends, the Motown superstars and the Velvet Underground influence, respectively. This month, we look at western classical concertos.

AMONG the various types of western classical compositions, this writer has a special weakness for concertos. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a concerto features a solo musician, who has a primary role in the piece, as against a symphony, where all musicians have important roles, but nobody is prominent.

Based on the instruments they are written for, we can have violin concertos, cello concertos, piano concertos, flute concertos, harp concertos, so on and so forth. At times, two or three soloists may also be used, and we can thus have a concerto for flute and harp (like the one composed by Mozart), or a concerto for piano, violin and cello (for example, the famous Beethoven piece).

A standard concerto has three movements – fast, slow and fast. While concertos are always a pleasure to listen to on CD or vinyl, watching them being performed live is a different experience altogether. The best place to hear them, of course, would be live in a concert hall, but besides that, one finds plenty of material on DVD and YouTube.

Before talking of five concertos that would be ideal for lay listeners, here’s a brief on the origin of the form. Here we are using the terms Baroque for music created in the 17th and early 18th centuries, Classical for music created in the later 18th century, Romantic for music created in the 19th century, and Modern for 20th century music. This is as per the generally accepted descriptions of these periods.

The term concerto was first used in the early Baroque period to denote works involving voice and instruments in which the instrument had an independent role. Late Baroque composers, like Bach and Vivaldi, created some memorable compositions, but it was in the Classical period that Mozart revolutionalised the form, writing five violin concertos and 27 piano concertos. His senior Josef Haydn, though more prolific with writing symphonies, composed four concertos for violin, two for cello and 12 for piano. In the Romantic period, most composers wrote magnificent concertos, and the trend was continued well into the Modern era.

With so many great concertos written over the years, choosing five isn’t an easy task. Here, I have looked at four popular works, and one unusual example, all of which have been personal favourites.

Violin Concerto in D Major – Tchaikovsky: Written in 1878, this was the only violin concerto created by the Russian composer, who is otherwise hugely known for his ballets ‘Swan Lake’, ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

One of the best-known among all violin concertos, Tchaikovsky’s piece is also considered one of the most difficult to play. It has three movements, and runs into 35 minutes.

The piece was written in Clarens, Switzerland, when the composer was recovering from his disastrous marriage. As he didn’t play the violin himself, he took the help of his pupil Iosif Kotek, who as per the grapevine was also his homosexual partner.

For Tchaikovsky’s concerto, one can check the recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with Isaac Stern as the soloist. Other violin concertos one can check are the five by Mozart, the six by great virtuoso Niccolo Paganini and the one written each by Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and modern composer Jean Sibelius.

Cello Concerto in B Minor – Antonin Dvorak: This composition by the Czech composer ranks among the best cello concertos ever written, and it would be ideal to begin with the one featuring noted cellist Msitslav Rostropovich, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Dvorak wrote this piece in 1895, and this was the last concerto he created. It has three movements running into 40 minutes. Its London premiere in 1896 was conducted by Dvorak himself, with Leo Stern playing the cello for the London Philharmonic.

Among the other cellos concertos, the ones by Haydn, CPE Bach, Robert Schumann, Carl Reinecke, Edward Elgar, Dmitri Shostakovich and Samuel Barber are recommended. British composer Benjamin Britten also wrote what he called a ‘cello symphony’, where equal emphasis was placed on cello and orchestra.

Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor – Sergei Rachmaninoff: Of the four piano concertos that Rachmaninoff wrote, No 2 was the most popular, coming as it did after the terrible response to No 1. The Russian composer wrote the second concerto in 1901.

Written in the standard three-movement format, the piece became so popular it was used in Hollywood soundtracks. The opening section, which sounds like the tolling of bells that lead to the main theme, is a class by itself.
Among the recordings, one can check out pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy playing both Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto No 2 and 3. There is also a priceless recoding of Rachmaninoff playing all his four piano concertos himself.

Over the years, numerous great piano concertos were written. Further suggested for listening are Mozart’s 24th and 26th, Beethoven’s five piano concertos, Frederic Chopin’s two, two by Franz Liszt and the two by Brahms.

Clarinet Concerto in A Major – Mozart: One of the last pieces created by the legendary Mozart before his death in 1791, the clarinet concerto was written for the clarinettist Anton Stadler. It is in three movements – fast, slow, fast.

As there is no autograph for this concerto, and it was published posthumously, critics have found it difficult to understand all of Mozart’s intentions. Yet, it stands out for the delicate interaction between soloist and orchestra, and has received an overwhelming response.

Among the recordings of this concerto, the one featuring clarinettist Sabine Meyer is outstanding. Among other clarinet concertos, those written by modern composers Aaron Copeland and Igor Stravinsky are noteworthy.

Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No 1 – Ravi Shankar: This was a pathbreaking attempt by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar in the early 1970s to blend Indian music with the western concerto format.

Shankar wrote two such concertos. The first was conducted by Andre Previn for the London Symphony Orchestra. The base is Indian, as it uses four Indian classical ragas – Khamaj, Sindhu Bhairavi, Adana and Manj Khamaj. The second concerto, also called Raga Mala was conducted by Zubin Mehta for the London Philharmonic, and features ragas Lalit, Bairagi, Yaman Kalyan and Miyan Ki Malhar. However, the tempo of the movements has been kept in western style, beginning with fast, then going on to slow and then back to fast.

Summing up: Here, we have talked of four concertos that are purely western classical by nature, and one that is a fusion between Indian music and the western concerto format. We have also mentioned some of the other popular concertos, though this by no means is a complete list.

Like the symphony, the concerto has had its own role to play in western classical music. And if you haven’t attended a live concert featuring a concerto, it’s high time you do.


Comments on: "Take Five: Western classical concertos" (1)

  1. Shankar Shenai said:

    Beautiful write up.

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